Homelessness can happen in the time it takes to have a two-hour conversation, in the time it takes to begin to know another person. Molly unfolded her life before me on a hot summer afternoon at a small apartment complex. Her request for an outreach team and her financial, emotional and physical vulnerability led to the unraveling of a lifetime of collecting. This is just one story that reflects the proximity of homelessness to any given person in any community.
When we arrive, Molly is on the grass with her dog, Trina. She greets us with smiles, generosity, relief and anxiety. Molly’s hair is falling down in strands around her face. She is visibly hot and fidgets with the leash. After introductions, Molly recognizes one of the social workers from a previous outreach call. She and the social worker, Karen, have a rapport. She talks about her house, assuring everyone that it is clean and that there are no bugs inside. After a series of questions from providers about where she has been staying the night, the team asks for phone numbers of Molly’s friends. Molly indicates the phone numbers are in the house. Karen* asks if it would be ok to come inside the house. Molly agrees to let everyone come in the house and begins to explain that her home is full of all the things she has worked so hard to earn over the years, but that it is very crowded and people should enter one at a time.
The front door is covered with strips of masking tape that have trapped cockroaches and flying ants. There is extensive tape along the floor of the home where the door closes. As we enter Molly’s home, she appears to become anxious, but leads people through the kitchen anyway. There is essentially no place to stand. The lights do not work. The refrigerator is not running. A neatly positioned stack of magazines form steps into the kitchen. Photographs of family members are perched with candles in one corner. It is clear that the history of items Molly has collected over a lifetime fill the house; most of these items are hidden. Beneath the carefully and artfully arranged chaos of what many people would call trash, her treasures fill the room in volumes.
Items such as nasal spray bottles, dollar bills, receipts, and candy wrappers, are teamed precariously on every available surface in piles that may or may not come crashing down. There is no place to sleep or sit. Within a few minutes, Molly is agitated, concerned that if the front door is not closed she will be attacked by flying ants that she has been keeping out with masking tape. The door is closed and Molly’s concerns increase. Service providers offer compassion and validation to Molly, reassuring her that she is safe. People leave her home one by one.
Providers consult with one another to discuss that Molly’s home is not safe for habitation. Molly’s level of anxiety has increased further and the team invites her to sit down on the grass. I am standing under a tree. I notice a flying ant. It is decided that the inspection team is being called. She will not be able to live in her home starting within hours. In my heart I come to the realization that I am observing an 83-year-old woman lose her home temporarily in the course of several hours. This is balanced with the understanding that she is not safe in her own home for many reasons, some of which include old age, poverty, difficult relatives, and the possibility of some physical and mental health care concerns that have been neglected.
Molly sits down on the grass, relieved to have been offered a chance to rest. The team stands in a circle around Molly. I am uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of space between Molly and everyone else and sit down on the grass too. Within ten minutes, one by one, each of the people who are there to help Molly also sit down with her. Many do this as if they have not done this kind of thing before. She tells everyone the details of her life, reiterating over and over that her house is not dirty, that it is full of treasures and beautiful things and that she is a very smart woman. I cannot help but agree with her and reinforce that her home is full of beautiful items and that she is indeed smart. Molly doesn’t miss a beat. She is incredibly perceptive and handles so many questions from six different people.
Molly is told that her home is not a safe place and that today she will leave her home. Her home will be locked up. Meanwhile phone calls are made to find a place for Molly to stay for the night, with longer conversations about assisted living, transitional housing, curiosities about available relatives.
Molly’s story continues to unfold beneath the tree. When Molly is told she is losing her home on this day, she melts into herself, hangs her head down and cries. She is assured that it is temporary. Taking a deep breath, she pulls herself out of loss and shakes her head. Molly nods in agreement that this is best. She reassures herself that she is happy. “Good people are here to help me. I have tried to clean this house on my own and to hire people, but they always steal from me,” says Molly. She indicates that no one in the world can be trusted.
Time passes and the two providers question Molly. She is asked to count the months backwards, and to recall and repeat phrases, the year, the month, the date. This seems to cause her a great deal of anxiety and while she completes these tests for mental acuity, she appears frustrated and again reiterates that she is a smart woman. While I am simply an observer, I find it upsetting that under such duress that Molly is asked to count the months of the year backwards. It strikes me as an inane exercise that only serves to elevate anxiety.
The inspection process is lengthy and painful, and Molly is reassured that nothing will be taken from the home without her consent. She is given clear instructions not to stay in her home until all safety requirements have been met. The team agrees that it would be very upsetting for Molly to watch them post a large red sign on the door stating the home is off limits. They agree to bypass this routine procedure.
Molly gathers a few belongings slowly and then it is time for her to leave. She reaches down to pick up a brown paper grocery bag filled with dog food and bowls for her dog. Andy, one of the social workers offers to take her bag for her.
This small moment of kindness, this gesture of assistance goes a long way. I see how throughout the course of the afternoon, that it has been the small moments of human kindness that have had the most significant impact.
Resolution hangs in the air like a question mark. I walk away realizing that I have just witnessed an elderly woman lose her home in two and a half hours. The gravity of this moment pulls me heavily into awareness and the concrete at my feet.
*all names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals in this story
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